How Do I Make My Villain 3 Dimensional?

I have been struggling with the villain in my thriller. My protagonist has reams of back story. I know her family history and personality intimately. I used the tips from the last character post to write her many layers.

But the antagonist, the evil one – well, he is just the evil one so far. That’s not good enough because although I am writing a thriller, I want to have a great character lineup as well.  As much as Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ taught me a lot, the evil character Mal’akh was pretty one-dimensional, so here are some ideas for fleshing out basic characters that just don’t seem real.

  • Examine the reasons why behind their driving force. Fuel Your Writing has a good list of what motivates a villain here. Mine wants power but the question is why does he want that. What has got him to the point of acting as he does? IS he evil for the sake of being evil – unlikely. There must be reasons behind the actions, and it’s your job to figure them out.
  • Give the villain some balance. There is the old cliche that even Nazi concentration camp killers loved their children. There are a few truly evil people in the world, but most bad people have humanising elements. Maybe they like classical music, which is a sign of culture, art appreciation and education. Maybe they care for their dog, or their Mum while on a murdering spree. This balance is where I am struggling at the moment. I don’t want to have the abused childhood as a reason for violence, although it is based on truth in the real world.
  • The villain doesn’t have to want to destroy the world. As the antagonist, he can just cause mayhem and pain to the protagonist stopping her from getting what she wants. But hey, I’m writing an action thriller so I’ve got to think big! I’m taking J.C. Hutchins John Alpha from 7th Son as a good example for my own novel. He is one evil, clever, destructive villain!
  • Check out how other villains are written. Here’s a list of Top 50 villains in literature. Satan makes no. 1 but I don’t think he counts as a character to humanise! Remember, you can use ideas to spark new ideas so go read up on villainous deeds and characters and then come back to the page.
  • Don’t be scared of writing evil stuff. Horror writers often get accused of having horrid, dark minds where violence lurks and evil dwells. But perhaps they have happy, clean minds because all the darkness gets written on the page. We all have dark dreams and taboo thoughts. We just need the courage to put them on the page. People will judge you and your novel regardless so embrace the judgement and put those dark words down.
  • Get some help. I am currently reading Larry Brooks ‘The Three Dimensions of Character‘ Ebook. It goes into the various dimensions of a character and encourages you to go deeper than just surface affectations and personality. You should also be investigating back story, a character’s world-view, their goals and motivations, inner conflicts and the character arc: how the character changes and learns as part of the story. There is also a great checklist of questions you can answer for your character.

Do you have any tips for writing convincing, strong character villains?

Image: Flickr CC Arunjrk

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  1. says

    My advice, very simply, is this: no one thinks they’re the bad guy.

    They have good reasons for what they’re doing, and their goal, from their point of view, is a good one.

    That they’re still willing to shoot people in the face to win just … you know… shows their commitment.

    • says

      Thanks Doyce – I have been thinking about this and you’re correct. He has to be convinced that he is doing the right thing. He is motivated to heal, it is just misguided motivation!

  2. says

    Larry Brooks does good work. His Three Dimensions hits exactly where needed.

    Note you should be doing most of your villain characterization during the design phase; pay as much attention to the villain as to the hero.

    Backstory, childhood, motivations, etc. Keep them in your design documents. That way, when you’re actually writing, you are doing so from that character’s viewpoint.

    When you have a balanced view of hero/villain, you’ve got a proper conflict. Design pages of character traits then write only enough to contribute to the story.

    You might care about the exact shade of green of a redhead’s eyes, but unless it contributes to the emotion or the story, leave it out of your writing.

    • says

      Thanks Bruce. I have done this exercise answering lots of questions about the character. It is interesting what comes out when doing that. As you say, much of it won’t make it into the story :)

  3. says

    In your list you look like you’re planning on delving into his drive for power… the question that popped into my mind was: what does he consider power and: how does he know when he has it, or does he?

    • says

      Thanks Anne. I am trying to define the kind of power he lacks and wants, and how he feels when there is a taste of it. Asking questions does seem to be the way forward in general with writing a novel!

  4. Helen Buckley says

    I recommend this article on writing a good Bad Guy. Essentially though, Doyce hit the nail on the head – the bad guy is the good guy of his own story.

    If you want a book recommendation – Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. It really shows you how there’s not really good vs evil in life, but decisions can spiral into tragedy.

    • says

      Thanks for the recommendations Helen! I do want my villain to be evil though – but because it fits with the religious thriller genre. But I am working on making his motivations easier to understand.

  5. says

    Re Helen B: Good and evil are definitely relative terms. One could say an opponent is “evil” simply because they are coming from a different viewpoint and are at least part of the conflict.

    Doyce’s article is good by pointing out the “villain” doesn’t have to be “bad” by anyone’s terms.

    One’s kid brother/sister or whomever could be an opponent causing conflicts simply by having other goals than the hero. The other goal gives the “villain” a different direction he’s going in which can cause our hero all sorts of troubles.

    Good work.

    • says

      Thanks Bruce – perhaps that is the difference between villain and antagonist type character. An antagonist is set against the protagonist and can be a brother/sister as you said, but a villain is really evil (or perhaps that is just how I want to see it… or perhaps just semantics!)

  6. Vasilios says

    The one dimensional evil character, to be a formidable foe, should be layered as per your various suggestions, all of which are very helpful. In the final analysis, what one is truly aiming for is to ‘humanize’ the villain because it is this very attribute which make him/her all the more menacing and intriguing. We need only look to real life serial killers such as Ted Bundy to understand this process wherein by making the line separating good from evil ambiguous, we are intensifying the element of terror.

  7. says

    Useful blog, Joanna! Sometimes it seems easier to create and write the villain, but that could be because he/she is stereotyped – there are reasons humans are what they are and the clever thing is to find the right match for your baddie!
    Your suggestions are great value, and thank you for the work you put into your blog. I love passing your link on to other writers (might meet you in Brisbane sometime?) :)

  8. Shandrea says

    This is a great post with helpful tips for constructing real characters. I’m currently writing a thriller and I will definitely use these tips to construct my villain.

  9. Jason says

    Excellent lines that people could be quoting.
    The Villain’s goal or goals could be good but their methods are deadly.
    Actions that show they are a villain.

    The protagonist is who the story is about, the antagonist is the person who opposes the protagonist. Just because someone is a antagonist doesn’t mean they are bad.
    Lex Luthor Man of Steel
    Lex Luthor is a super villain in this limited series he was the protagonist, Superman the super hero was the antagonist.
    Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street, Michael Myers Of Halloween, Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th, etc. They are villain protagonists.


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